All businesses are people businesses. With the right team, founders can cruise towards North Stars and tide over cash crunches. At CloudCherry before, and now at Uniphore, I have seen that encouraging teams to play together helps the company stay together.
I have always been a big believer in small stories. That is how I took away an existential lesson from an IKEA chest I once tried to assemble.
When I first moved CloudCherry to the US in 2016, I picked up a DIY seat for my house. Budgets were tight and the cost differential between handymen in India and the US was still subject to sticker shock. I chose to take “DIY” as an edict, not wanting to spend $300 for a handyman to assemble it. After a few evenings of fussing over nuts and bolts, the realization hit me. These were hours and energy I could have been using to get customers, raise capital, build a world-beating team, think of the next great feature or to even waylay a complete stranger and tell them why Cloudcherry was going to change the world. I was there to put together a company, not furniture. In that scheme of things, $300 was not life-changing. My time was.
This was a pivotal reminder of the company’s north star. We had brought CloudCherry to the US chasing a higher objective. Because that was where the most influential customers with the most dollars to spend were. Winning them over would make us the company we wanted to be. It was why we had taken a mad leap of faith. So I got to work again.
My point is that big moments don’t always announce themselves loudly, in a ‘stop-the-presses!’ kind of way. They emerge from small, everyday events. As a founder, I have learned to pay attention to them.
Do not run out of cash.
In 2014, when CloudCherry was a baby and two years before its big move from India, another small story helped me get out of a rocky road.
Just three months in, we were out of cash. How did we get there? We had signed an agreement for early investment and, still wet behind the ears, the money was to flow in tranches. We ran out of cash. Fast. And had to run the next eight months on loans from family and well-wishers. I felt guilty because they were not betting this money on an oversubscribed IPO, they were giving it to a captain trying to plug the hole in a sinking boat. Things looked bleak when we had not found the money to pay salaries by the 10th day of one month.
We were a team of 12 and I knew they had mortgages to pay and families to support. I dragged myself to the office, expecting anxious looks and a deflated mood. But they were already at work, upbeat and motivated as if nothing had changed.
That episode told me they were a crew that would fight for us. And they were worth fighting for. We heightened our search and got another small investment to keep the boat steady. By the 17th of the month, we managed to pay out pending salaries.
We have never skipped payments since then. So what is the takeaway for founders here? Make sure your company always has capital. And if you do run out of cash. If it means giving customers a discount to get working capital in the company, do it. But make sure you have got yourself a team that can rescue you from a slump.
Think of your company as people, not a product.
That brings me to the next learning. Perhaps the gravest mistake a founder can make is failing to recognize that a company is the sum of its people. They are the fuel to your plans, the lifeblood of your actions. Without people, your idea is worth about as much as the paper it is written on.
It takes effort to bring together a team that has passion, commitment, and incredible talent. Skimp on that and you have on your hands a team struggling to bring its A-game. So start investing in ways and means to understand your employees. I believe that founders need to be present in the room and hire employees.
Brian Chesky of Airbnb famously spent six months going through thousands of resumes to hire his first engineer. For him, it was important to know who he would be building his idea with. He needed to know if they saw his vision and appreciated the problem.
Creating a highly collaborative atmosphere can seem like a daunting task. People are not machines, they don’t come with instructions. I wanted to solve this from the beginning at Uniphore. But, if you ask nicely, I find employees will give you a cheat sheet. We tell every new recruit at the company to fill in what we call, in good humor, a ‘user manual’. It is one of our great innovations. Instead of introductions, employees just discuss each others’ manuals.
Always know and understand who you hire. At the end of the day, they are the people who will make spending the 10 hours every day at work worthwhile.
Optimize company culture.
The idea for the user manual actually came from a ‘culture manual’ I used to write at CloudCherry. These were candid internal blogs about startup life, our people, and the ups and downs of business. It was my attempt to communicate the company culture and make sure new entrants could catch up with our journey.
What even is company culture? It is when you inspire people to care and connect, and they reward you with their spirit and pride.
Founders need to carve out time for building culture because it makes operational sense too. Consider a simple example. There are going to be a number of morning people on your team, and equally, a few late risers. Would you rather have some employees turn up grumpy for a 7 am meeting? Or can you comfortably push it to 11 am and keep everybody happy? When your team’s preferences and pet peeves are known, it is possible to make easy fixes so that everyone feels included.
With the user manual, things fast-forward to the point where colleagues know each other’s working styles. The questions we add range from some searching ones to a few just for laughs: ‘What kind of environment brings me down’, ‘How do I receive feedback?’, ‘If I were a meme, what would I be?’
The team learns to trust and communicate this way. They can safely fight the good fight and have those healthy arguments that lead to the best ideas.
Let employees ‘own’ their work.
Founders should also take a leaf from Girish Mathrubootham’s book. He manages to share little inside jokes with several of his employees. That comes from an authentic place of being interested. Folks at his company go beyond the brief.
I will leave you with one last small story. A few years ago I got a call from a Freshworks employee, Nivas. As I was driving through Palo Alto traffic, he quizzed me on ideas for a SaaS community. Because I had gone through startup programs including the Microsoft Accelerator, I shared everything I knew.
He made notes and began working on a blueprint for what is now a multimillion-dollar business – the Freshworks Startup Program. It was an instance where someone was taking initiative outside their work responsibilities. Beyond being an employee, Nivas was acting as an owner would have. This success of the initiative was representative of the true triumph of the culture of ownership of Freshworks.
If you can give them suitable conditions, that is the kind of magic employees feel motivated to create. Take it from a captain whose crew helped him sail over rough seas. The team which worked without a salary for a month at CloudCherry? They are with me at Uniphore.
There is no magical way of creating a successful company. But these are small steps that help it become a success.